Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fun, Fascinating Facts

1. I’ve been invited to join the netball team in Ha’ano. I’m looking forward to it, but after every practice/game that I’ve watched, I’ve seen several people with bloody knees or twisted ankles.

2. I’m my own handyman: I set up my stove by myself – EVEN the gas attachment. I haven’t blown my house up or even singed off my eyebrows.

3. The 4 new PVCs from Pangai, 2 old PVCs from Pangai, a JICA (the Japanese version of the PC), and I are going to Uoleva for Christmas. It’s an uninhabited island nearby. There’s a resort on it, but no electricity or cell-phone service. For New Year’s, I’ve invited that group to Ha’ano.

Breaking and Entering, Part II

My belongings arrived on the ferry, and I was setting up my house. Another gust of wind blew my bedroom door closed. Though I had my keys with me, none of them opened the door. I decided to handle this break-in myself instead of embarrassing myself in front of the town again. I pulled up the nails for the security wire in my bedroom, but rather than removing the whole window’s wire, I pulled up just enough that I could fit through. Or so I thought. I squeezed myself through about half way, but at that point, when I was dangling by my hips half in the room and half out, I got caught on the wire. I couldn’t move. I dangled helplessly with my butt out the window. Fortunately, a group of schoolkids came by, and they helped me untangle myself and wiggle through.

Good news: The kids are very helpful.

Bad news: The kids must think their teacher is an idiot.

Breaking and Entering, Part I

The first full day I was in Ha’ano, I wanted to go for a run to see the island. I stepped outside to toss away some garbage before heading off, and a gust of wind blew my door closed. My keys were locked inside! I went to the PTA president’s home to see if he would have a key, since he was the person who let me into my house in the first place. His wife gave me a janitor-style keychain and told me that one of these should work. No luck. I went back to tell her, and she came over to help me break into my house. Peace Corps has a policy that all female Volunteers’ homes must have security wire on the windows. Mine was put up just last week. Unfortunately, that was too soon. With a handful of neighbors looking on, we got a hammer and pried up all the nails to take off the wire, and I was able to reach in and turn the doorknob.

Good news: It’s difficult for an intruder to break into my house.

Bad news: It’s difficult for me to break into my house.

First Few Days in Ha'ano

My first few days have been, well, busy. My home was absolutely empty for the first four days, since all PCVs shipped their belongings on the ferry, and the ferry arrived several days after we arrived. Since I was unable to cook for myself, and since I was being “integrated into the community” (PC-talk), my neighbors took turns feeding me. Households would bring me food of I would go to their homes for almost all my meals: fried dough balls for breakfast and fried fish, fried chicken, kumala (a sweet root crop), corn, ‘otai (a sweet coconut and fruit drink), eggs, and lu (a traditional dish of meat and coconut cream wrapped in a spinach-like leaf and cooked in the underground oven, the umu) for lunch and dinner. I’ve been able to meet a number of people in my village that way, though I have trouble remembering everyone’s name.

Since church is such a big deal in Tonga, I’ll be going to church every Sunday, if not more frequently. There are four churches in my village: Free Church of Tonga, Church of Tonga, Wesleyan, and Mormon. I went with a woman in my village to the Free Church of Tonga, and, after church, I went to her house to eat with her family. There are about 15 people living in her home, and, despite asking how everyone is related, I’m not sure what all the connections are. (“This guy is the nephew of her mother’s sister’s husband’s grandmother, but he was adopted by his father’s eldest sister when he was young so he doesn’t live here; he’s just visiting.”)

When I eat at most homes, I’m shown the same kind of respect I was shown at the beginning of my homestay in Fangale’ounga. I am seated away from the rest of the family, sometimes in another room. Whereas the rest of the family’s food is presented as it comes out of the umu, mine is cut into bite sized pieces. I’m fed before everyone else, or others just watch me eat. I try to tell them I’d like to eat all together, but they insist on their way. Maybe after some time, they’ll feel more comfortable with me, and we’ll eat together, like in Fangale’ounga.

A Quick Update

It’s been so long since my last blog and so many things have happened, so here’s a quick update:

1. After living in Fangale’ounga for 2 months with my host family, I (and all other Peace Corps Trainees) spent a weekend with a current Peace Corps Volunteer to see what it’s “really” like to be a Volunteer. I went to another town on the island with two other PCTs, but rather than experiencing the true Peace Corps lifestyle, we just enjoyed eating palangi (foreigner/American) food (tortillas, brownies, chocolate chip cookies, pizza) and resting. We met up with the rest of the group in Nuku’alofa (the capital city) for about a week more of teacher training and language classes.

2. On December 16, the 25 of us swore in as official Peace Corps Volunteers. We said the whole “I do solemnly swear to protect and uphold the Constitution of the United States of America” bit, there were speeches by the Minister of Education in Tonga and a Tongan minister, I participated in a traditional Tongan dance, and some other newly-anointed Volunteers read hymns.

3. We left for our respective sites the next day. For me, that meant heading back to Ha’apai, the island group where we all had lived as PCTs. There are 4 new PCVs in Pangai (the main town in Ha’apai), and 3 new PCVs in outer islands of Ha’apai. I’m on the island of Kauvai in the town of Ha’ano. The 2 other PCVs in outer islands in Ha’apai are living so far away that they don’t even fly into the airport like we 5 do; they take the ferry from Nuku’alofa straight to Ha’afeva, then smaller boats to each of their islands. (If you want to look their islands up, the islands are Kotu and Matuku. Matuku’s not even labeled on some maps in Tonga. If you can’t find those islands, they’re 2 green dots in the ocean. After 2 years, those PCVs will have the best answers to the question, “What would you take if you were stranded on a desert island?”) The PTA president of my school came to pick me up, and after a drive to the wharf, we took a boat to Ha’ano, and I was home.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

House in Ha'ano

A couple of weeks ago, I went back to my future house in Ha'ano. I went with a Peace Corps staffer to do a security check of the house (Are there locks on all the doors? Is there a secondary escape route in case of a fire? Is the roof attached to the walls?), and this time I brought a camera.

We got a ride to the far town on the island of Foa, then my school's principal came on a boat to pick us up. The boat took about 45 minutes or an hour, but on a small boat with choppy water, it was not enjoyable. Coming back, the ride was faster and smoother, and here's a picture of my island, Kauvai, as we left.

My house is a 2-minute walk from the dock and right on the school compound. It used to be a classroom, but some time ago, they converted it to a house for a PCV. There has been a Volunteer for the past two years, so his things are still in the house, but here's a picture of the bedroom. There's not a closet or dresser, so he hung all his clothes on nails scattered around the room. Some people tell me that's the best method, because sweaty clothes will dry and not mildew that way.

I've got a big living area, bigger than most houses I've seen. There's some good cross ventilation between the front and back doors, so supposedly the house doesn't get unbearable in the summer months (February-ish).

Here's the kitchen. The last PCV had running water in the sink, but there wasn't a drain, so he had to collect the water in a bucket and dump it out outside. I, however, get a sweet sink with pipes and everything!

Perhaps the best part is the view off my porch. No need to explain why.

With more internet, I'll put up more pictures, but for now, there's my future home in Ha'ano!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fun in Fangale'ounga

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to use the internet. We’ve been teaching at local schools for the past week and a half, practicing lesson plans on the kids. It’s the end of their school year, so some are rather apathetic, but I’m teaching a 4th grade class, and they’re pretty interested in everything this palangi (white person) has to say.

Also, I’ve been told that the picture on the heading of this page isn’t Tonga; it’s Samoa or something. So sorry for misleading everyone, but it really looks like that anyway, so I’m not going to change it.

Last Friday, we didn’t teach at my school. Instead, all the primary schools in the area (that is, the four of them) got together for sports day. It seems the schools keep a running tally of wins and losses in their sports, and there might be an award at the end, but I’m not really sure. Girls play a sport called netball. It’s kind of like basketball, except once you receive the ball, you can’t dribble or run, so you pass the ball a lot. (One Peace Corps Trainee explained, “Oh, it was like a game girls played in America before they realized girls could run.”) For boys, they play rugby. That’s a pretty rough sport. These kids are pretty brutal too. “Touch” rugby is non-existent, and it seems all games end with a number of ripped shirts. Some of the PVT boys wanted to play rugby, just to see what it was like, but I think the Tongans told them no because they’d get hurt.

Friday night was a big night on the island of Foa. Since churches are often central to the social life of a village, they are often the hangout on nights and weekend. On our island, each town has a Mormon church, and each Mormon church has a basketball/volleyball court. (It really is the happening place with either sport happening any given evening.) On Friday, however, my town had a big dance at the Mormon church. It was explained to me by an American Mormon missionary working in Tonga that the dance traditionally was for Tongan youth to find their spouses. (Since the towns are so small, I can’t imagine not realizing someone living there until the Mormon dance, but ok.) Friday night just seemed like a time when the youth could dress up and dance, without being deemed “improper.” The dancing was conservative – boys and girls were so far apart you weren’t really sure if you were dancing with that other person, but the music was pop and hip-hop American stuff. Black-Eyed Peas, Akon, a remix of “Everything I Own,” all jazzed up with a tropical beat.

The Peace Corps Trainees that were there laughed about the premise, going to the dance to find you family (eternal family, if you’re Mormon), but overall we had a good time dancing and doing something on Friday night. Usually we sit around, like all Tongan do. Case in point, Saturday night, the three other Peace Corps Trainees and I watched “Sister Act” on one of their computers. Though I love “Sister Act,” the dance was a change of pace.

On Thursday, I’ll be teaching in the morning, but after that, we’ve got a feast for Thanksgiving planned for all the Peace Corp Volunteers, Trainees, and staff. My town is in charge of mashed potatoes for 50 people. We’ll be busy.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Puna Mo'unga Afi (Flying Mountain Fire)

The title has nothing to do with the post, except it's my new favorite phrase in Tongan. Of course, the more accurate English translation would be "volcano," but flying mountain fire is so picturesque.

I saw my future house in Ha'ano over the weekend! We were doing a scavenger hunt on the island for cassava plants, people roasting pigs over fires, women weaving, etc. My team of three was in a different village than Ha'ano, but after the hunt, we had lunch and festivities at my future home. It's big and clean. There are only three rooms (kitchen, bedroom, living room), but it's well-made (no tin walls for me!), and there's even running water in the kitchen sink. The shower (no bucket bath for me either!) and toilet (it flushes and everything!) are in an outhouse sort of situation, but, like I said, it's all clean and well-made. There's a big porch that looks out onto the ocean, which is about 30 feet away. I've even got two trees that will hold my hammock perfectly. It's inside the school compound, and next year the principal will move in next door to me. I got to meet her on the scavenger hunt, and she seems very nice.

We go back to the capital city of Nuku'alofa in December, so I'll buy my oven/stove for my house there, but that's about the only exciting amenity in the house. There's limited electricity (only 7pm-2am), so fridges would be useless, and the island is so short (maybe 2 miles long) that a bike doesn't make sense either. Since there aren't many chances to get some foods I'd like (fake cheese, canned vegetables, olive oil) on my island, I'll probably buy those things in Nuku'alofa too.

Next weekend is the performance of Tongan dances, Tongan skits, and American songs. It should be good.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Day in Fangale'ounga

I've been here about three weeks, so I've somewhat figured out the routine for training. I'm sure you're all anxious to find out all the details of my days, so here you are:

5:30 am - There's a church about a stone's throw from my backyard (and another one down the street, and another one around the corner), and they hold services at 6:00 am Monday/Wednesday/Friday. I haven't gone (my family's Mormon, so we go to church for 3 hours on Sunday), but they ring their bells at 5:30, waking me up. I'd like to go back to sleep, but soon after that, the traditional scream-singing of the churchgoers commences. I wait in bed until a more acceptable hour.

7:00 am - I'm awake by now. Since we go to bed at about 9:30 pm with nothing to do, I've definitely gotten a full night's sleep. I'll get water from the rainwater collection tank, tote it to the bathroom to wash my face, then pour that dirty water into the back of the toilet to get it to flush. My host mom, Ana, has breakfast ready for me. It's most often hot chocolate, crackers with butter, cookies, and a hard boiled egg, but yesterday I bought bread in town. That means that every meal will be bread-oriented until the bread runs out. So, the last time that happened, I got a bunch of fried bread and bread-butter-tomato sandwiches for breakfast. Today, I got sandwiches of spaghetti and corned beef. Ana made about a dozen. I ate two. And I still had my hot chocolate.

8:30-12:30 pm - Language class. I'm in a group of 4 PCTs and one Tongan Tongan-language instructor. Even though we've only been here a few weeks, I can communicate, sometimes at painfully slow speeds, what I have done/am doing/will be doing. Ana speaks English, but we try to speak in Tongan more at home so that I can practice.

1:00 pm - Lunch at home. Really, it could be anything. I feel like meals here are like my meals in college: I eat what there is. Once lunch I had watermelon and potatoes. Another day I had raw fish salad. Another day I had an ear of corn.

Since Ana is a weaver, she and her weaver group of two other women come to the house to work on a mat almost every day. They have business meetings every Friday, and sometimes they organize selling mats to Tongans as far away as America. Usually, however, they'll sell their mats to someone in the market in Nuku'alofa, the capital city. Ana says that there are a number of these weaver groups in every town. So after lunch, I usually hear them talking, but I don't understand anything but a word here and there. Even so, I know they're often talking about the palangis in town. I suppose in a town of only a couple hundred people, the details of four palangis would be interesting.

3:00 pm - We usually don't have organized activities in the afternoon during the week, so we can go to town (like I did today), go for a run (a shocking concept to some Tongans), study language (necessary, but sometimes overwhelming), or sit around (a favorite Tongan pasttime). My town of 4 palangis usually has an extra language class for an hour in the evening, so that sometimes is the entertainment.

All the PCTs are participating in a culture day in about two weeks. We have to: 1) learn a Tongan dance, 2) do a skit in Tongan, 3) teach at least one Tongan something of American culture. Trying to do these things has also become the thing to do in Fangale'ounga. Melissa, the other girl PCT in my town, and I are learning a graceful dance, but we're not nearly as graceful as the Tongans. The two guy PCTs in town are learning a war dance, but it doesn't look nearly as masculine when they do it. We're trying to teach some kids a dance to a medley of American songs. If we can pull it off, it should be good, but that's a big if.

7:00 pm - Dinner. Again, anything. I've had ramen noodles with canned beef but also an enormous lobster. (Seriously, it was the length of my fingertips to elbow.) I think my family likes having me as their guest because, since I can't eat all they put in front of me, they'll just eat all my leftovers, which is usually a lot.

9:30 pm - With nothing much to do in town, and host parents not wanting us girls wandering out alone after dark, we're usually all at home by 9:30. I'll probably sit around on the big porch with Ana and my host sister, Valu, or I'll study. All that sitting around can really tire me out, though, so I go to bed soon after.

And soon enough, the church bells are ringing again.

Future Site: Ha'ano, Ha'apai

After several attempts to travel to town to get internet (making it once, but, alas, the internet was down), I've succeeded.

Last weekend, all 26 PCT (Peace Corps Trainees) learned where we'd be living and working for the next two years. I'll be in Ha'ano, a town on an island north of Foa (the island that I'm living on now). It's about a 45-minute boat ride (when the boat is running, of course) to the northernmost town on Foa, and then a 40-minute drive (when a ride is available, of course) into Pangai, the "big" town. Though I'll be the only palangi (foreigner) on the island of about 350 people, there are a number of other PCV (Peace Corps Volunteers) in Pangai, so I'd be able to hang out with them on a long weekend perhaps.

One of the PCVs that's helping with our training was working in Ha'ano for the past two years, in my future house and all, so I've been able to learn more than most other PCTs about my site. The house is on the primary school compound (where I'll be working), and it's about 50 m from the ocean. Though many houses in Tonga have problems with molokaus (giant hard-shelled centipedes that are aggressive and have a horrible bite), supposedly the biggest animal problem for my house is hermit crabs wandering up from the water. Since I won't have running water, I'll use the rainwater collected in a large tank, which is what I do at my home now. I'll have electricity from 7pm-2am daily, but it sometimes doesn't come on at all. The PCV there now says that, since it's difficult to preserve food without a fridge, he ate a lot of his meals at people's homes in the community. Not only did he get fed, but his Tongan also improved a lot.

This upcoming Saturday, there will be a PCT scavenger hunt in Ha'ano, so I'll get to see my house and the school. A couple of people who will be in Pangai have also seen their sites, so we'll be more prepared about what we should buy to stock our houses before moving in. That'll be especially useful for me, because, since I'm on an outer island, I won't be able to just go down to the store for anything.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Letter to classes in America

The Peace Corps has a program where Peace Corps Trainees (which I am now and throughout training) and Volunteers can be matched up with classes in America to share experiences about their country of service and hopefully relate that to the classwork that's going on in America. I'm teaming up with Cindy Arnold's AP Human Geography class, so I'll be sending them a letter or email about once a month about things that are going on here. Since her Human Geography class sounds like it covers just about everything, I think/hope it'll be a great way for kids to get some second-hand (but very personal!) experiences that relate to their studies. Here's the first email I sent them:

Hi everyone and malo e lelei from Tonga! I've been in Tonga for almost two weeks now. I came with 26 other Americans in the Peace Corps, and we're living for the next 8 weeks in one of the island groups called Ha'apai. For these 8 weeks, we're learning about the Tongan language, Tongan culture, and how we will work in our communities. We each have our own host family. My family consists of: Ana (28, a mat-weaver), Kale ([Kah-lay] 38, fisherman), and Valu (2). I'm learning a lot by living with them and experiencing the Tongan way of life everyday.

In our classes, we talk about culture, among other things, and why Tongans are the way they are. In general, Tonga is a very traditional country. For instance, hierarchy in society is very important. Understanding the Tongan hierarchy is essential to understanding Tonga.

Tonga has three classes: Royals, nobles, and commoners. Almost everything in Tonga is determined by where you rank, either between these classes, or within these classes. Many mechanisms are in place to demonstrate the difference in rank. For instance, the king has his own language, and people can only talk to the king in this language. For another thing, people can never walk in front of the king, other royalty, or other nobility. In Tonga, there are men called talking chiefs, people who speak for the king, royalty, or nobility. At a ceremony, for instance, the honored nobleman doesn't speak, but rather the talking chief receives gifts and thanks guests. This is to show that the person of a higher rank is too important to speak with lower people.

Even among commoners, rank is very important. People are stratified by age, gender, and family. This can affect all areas of life. For instance, at a meeting, lower ranked people will start the discussion, but once the highest ranked person in the room has said his opinion, the discussion is over. Even if his opinion is not logically "right" (by American standards), in Tonga, it is more important to respect the hierarchy than challenge it.

Our first weekend in Tonga, we went to a church service in the capital city, since religion is a very important part of Tongan culture. Some of the Peace Corps people went to a Free Wesleyan church, and who, of all people, was there too? The king of Tonga. At the church, he sat in an area by himself, slightly elevated than the rest of the congregation. Even in church, the king is separated from the rest of the people because he is a higher rank.

Rank is very important even within a class. My first dinner (and every meal since) with my host family, I was the honored person. Guests are very respected in a Tongan home, and my family showed me this respect in ways that surprised me. They sat their two-year-old daughter on the floor to eat, to show that she was below me. When I (in my sad Tongan) tried to suggest we all eat together, they sat at the far end of the table to give me space. Some meals I eat by myself, since that is another way to show respect. Just as the king is separated from the crowd at church, I am separated from the family at meals.

Through the next weeks of classes and training, I'm sure I'll learn more about the hierarchy within Tonga, especially how to work within it. To get any work done, it's important to go to the right people for their opinions, even as a courtesy call. I've heard of a Peace Corps Volunteer who didn't ask the governor for permission to do something (though she would certainly have been granted it), and the governor went out of his way to block her steps to achieve her goal. Obviously, it's very important to understand who ranks where in a society where everything functions around the hierarchy.

I'm enjoying my time here so far. I'm in Fangale'onga, Foa, Ha'apai island group, if you'd like to look it up. Or visit. My mom found some information about the area which sounds very true, except for the horses thing. No horses for transportation. And there's also a one-way road that connects the two islands; whichever direction the car on the road is going is the direction of traffic and everyone else has to wait until that car is off the bridge. Furthermore, the airport we landed in takes up the whole width of the island. It cuts the main road on the island in half, so when a plane is landing or taking off, perhaps twice a day, gates come down to block traffic, much like railroad crossings.

Like I've said, we've got language and training classes for the next 8 weeks. The way the Tongan language is, you can never have two consonants together, and the letters B and R don't exist. Alas, the name "Blair" is quite difficult for Tongans. So, we've changed my name to a Tongan-appropriate one: Pele. Pele is a Tongan name; it means "beloved one" and also "playing cards." Go figure.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tau o! Let's go!

I won't be showing my armpits in public for a while. Tongans frown on such risque behavior for women, so I'm appeasing Tongans everywhere and covering them up for the next 27 months. To all the fans of my armpits, I'm sorry. The same goes for fans of my knees, midriff, and shoulders.

Fans of my wrists, elbows, feet, and face may rejoice, however, since they will be able to see these appendages as I volunteer with the Peace Corps in Tonga for the next 27 months.

On Monday, October 5, I leave for Los Angeles for a day of training, mostly paperwork I'd guess. Tuesday night we're off to Apia, Samoa, then we head to the island of Tongatapu, Tonga. We'll have about 8 weeks of Pre-Service Training on the island of Ha'apai, when we'll learn about the culture, technical training for our jobs (for me, teaching English), and other safety and health issues. We'll also have an intense Tongan-language program. We'll be living with a host family for that time, so it will be an opportunity to put into action everything we learned from the Pre-Service Training.

We'll officially be sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers on December 16, then we head off to different parts of the country to work for the next two years.

But for now, it's goodbye to my sultry armpits, hello to my calf-length skirts, and tau o to Tonga!